The theme of hidden histories has in some shape or form been present throughout both of our recent projects, Mailbox44 and Where the Wildflowers Grow + A Sense of Direction. We have slowly started to unpack these stories throughout our projects during the first theme of Family Spaces but now we talk more in-depth about the intricacies of these histories and why it is vital to explore them through the form of visual storytelling today.
During this theme, we also featured three incredible practitioners Nuno Guerreiro de Sousa, Alba Diaz, and Vera Zurbruegg who have produced projects on the multi-faceted and complex topics of community, society, and isolation in the context of hidden histories in various countries around the world.
The term Hidden Histories corresponds directly to my recent project, Mailbox44. For this project, I explored what once was a secret town in Russia during the Cold War Period. During the Nuclear Age, Russia constructed many secret towns that were scattered across various geographic locations, ranging from as far east as Vladivostok, and Siberia. Workers, scientists, and practitioners were invited to come to work and live there. Secret towns were built in a specific way, using a similar spatial grid, and were often referred to as ‘clones’ due to their similarity and appearance.
Moreover, each town was often referred to as a ‘mailbox’ and had a specific number code that was associated with each specific town. In this way, it was able to conceal its geographic location, yet still, allow some form of in-bound / out-bound communication.
It is no longer a secret today. - Kristina
The Greek Civil War (1946-1949) caused displacement and separation of my family members that used to live in northern Greece, and has been a taboo topic in my grandmother’s household for a few decades. It is a part of history that has been concealed in my family, due to the civil war's impact on them. However, the past continues to be rooted not only in my relatives but also in the Greek land, the elderly individuals living within Greece, who experienced the war and the ones that were forced to leave to foreign countries, during or after the conflict.
The core of my project was to learn more about family’s secrets and respond to hidden histories that are not frequently discussed. Through ‘Where the Wildflowers Grow’, my intention was to attempt to include this topic into our current discourse. - Michaela
“The town needed us. The factory was built first and then they invited the workers to service various departments. There were sports events, there were artists and a theatre. I came here in 1957 and there were one or two-story houses, many barracks. The food and accommodation were free.” - Rita.
The eldest generation of residents arrived within the first two decades of the town's existence and experienced a utopian lifestyle. As the rules and regulations that were imposed were strict and severe during the 1940s and throughout the Soviet Era, living in a closed secret town provided further restrictions for residents when discussing various aspects about their lives. Those who moved there when the town was beaming with affluence were asked to sign documents to ensure that this utopia was kept a secret from the rest of the world. The secrecy was due to a factory within the premises of the town. - Kristina
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"Round the corner or É já ali is a commonly used expression in Alentejo, a region in southern Portugal. The vast mountainous landscape and the sparse distribution of inhabitants create a very specific scale of both distance and time. Often, when asked for directions, people will say it’s ‘round the corner’ even though it could be more than an hour’s drive away.
Odemira, part of Alentejo, is the largest municipality in Portugal. It is also one of the country’s least densely populated areas. Its local touristic slogan - “Odemira - the best beaches in Portugal” - demonstrates how local governmental agents have been overlooking and neglecting inland regions of the municipality.
The ongoing isolation, desertification and insufficient social engagement, has contributed to Odemira having the highest suicide rate per capita in Europe, one of the highest in the world, specially amongst the elderly. Round the corner portrays the isolation that the landscape imposes on its people, while collecting personal stories on life in rural Alentejo and explores the prevalent suicide culture."
MN, Photo with the window and old photo
Throughout my walks in Antartiko village, I encountered many unoccupied houses but this one intrigued me, as there was a photograph left behind its window.
Currently, there are more houses in the site that are empty than inhabited, judging from the state of housing in the village. The official sources state that the population of the village is around 80 inhabitants, though the locals told me that the number must be lower, saying that there are possibly only 40 residents living in the place on a daily basis. - Michaela
During the Cold War period, the main idea was to attract scientists, practitioners and workers to come live and work within Mailbox44.
The town had a unique physical appearance, many say that it was something out of the ordinary. Mailbox44 ensured to provide schools, food, theatres, ski slopes - everything that people dreamed of having prior to moving to this utopian town. A privileged lifestyle was introduced, but with this privilege also came the secrecy which until this day has impacted the lives of those who moved to the town during the Soviet Era. - Kristina
The photograph shows the daily occurences in Antartiko village. The man on the right is Antonio, a local from the village, whose daily activity is to play backgammon in one of the only two meeting places in the whole village. He and his friend used to play every afternoon over the summer whilst drinking coffee and swearing out loud when one of them lost. - Michaela
During the Spanish Civil War (1936—1939) and Franco’s dictatorship, thousands of people were executed and buried in unmarked ditches around Spain. My great-grandfather Jose Montes de Oca was among those never found.
‘The Pact of Silence’ focuses on the way in which political amnesia and repression evolved into national complicity in the collective forgetfulness about the executed. In 1977, an Amnesty Law was passed with the aim of striving towards national reconciliation. However, it became an unsigned national pact known as the Pact of Silence or Pact of Forgetting, which served to create oblivion and silence victims.
Spanish society today is unaware of the presence of communal ditches that conceal dead bodies underneath their ordinary spaces. Mundane locations such as car parks, schools or road conjunctions prevent the recovery of victims, while prompting an uncertain future for the concealed bodies. My project ’The Pact of Silence’ explores this coordinated collective forgetfulness and the possible locations where my great-grandfather could be buried.
“We rarely went to larger cities because we had everything here, there was simply no need to go looking for anything else. The infrastructure was built in such a way which meant that people did not have to leave the city, the state created a world of its own. Notably, no other small towns had so many schools, it was rare to have a theatre, two cinemas, an amusement park. The state wanted to support this in order to prevent people from leaving.” Recalls one of the residents from Mailbox44. - Kristina
a photograph from my project called ‘A Sense of Direction’. It was photographed in a small town in Czech Republic, where my grandmother used to live as a Greek Civil War refugee. Through this work, we explored her connection to the children’s home, where she was staying and discovered how this experience shaped her identity.
Titled ‘The Waterfall’ this photograph portrays my grandmother sitting by a waterfall, which used to be one of her favourite spots when she was living in the town. - Michaela
There was an interesting dynamic with this town which I only discovered and understood prior to starting to work on this project. I was never told the reason behind the closed town status, or why we needed permits to access the town through its control gates.
Historically, the secrecy surrounding this topic prevented people from talking about these enclosed secret spaces and I guess, to an extent, this silence has continued amongst the older generations. As a child, I never questioned why the town maintained these precarious monuments and why there were so many of them. However, now having heavily researched this environment I can truly read into the connotations associated with the monuments within the town. - Kristina
‘Silence Is Golden’ is a work in progress which engages with the different aspects of state secrecy and concealment of information in the context of the gold trades between the Swiss National Bank and the Third Reich and its direct effect on the people.
Switzerland was the primary hub for the Nazis to exchange gold for hard currencies to buy goods for their warfare. Some of this gold had a specific provenance: it was composed of the remelted property of prisoners of concentration camps. These gold bars are known as victim gold.
Documents show that in 1943 the Swiss National Bank had the suspicion that the German gold came from Nazi-occupied territories and was being confiscated by the Reichsbank in gross violation of international law. Nevertheless, the Swiss National Bank kept accepting gold until 1945.
After the war, these victim gold bars were then presumably used for the minting of an iconic Swiss gold coin, the ‘Vreneli’. This coin is mainly given as a gift for special occasions such as baptisms or significant birthdays. Through the withholding of information, buyers of such gold coins were unknowingly complicit in the morally questionable deals between the Swiss National Bank and the Nazis.
The multimedia installation ‘Silence Is Golden’ was first exhibited in the context of the postgraduate exhibition “Everything Was Forever” at London College of Communication.
Each town was known by a generic name, a pochtovy yashchik or “mailbox” to which correspondence could be sent, removing the need for an address that might identify their location. Closed towns were designed in a particular way, each following a similar spatial grid and layout. They were often referred to as “clones” because of their similarity to one another. Authorisation was required to enter or leave, and many residents spent their entire lives within the confines of the walls that separated them from their surroundings.
The project often presents images of bird boxes which illustrate the symbolism of a closed environment. The entrance of the bird box allows for a specific species of bird, therefore providing a safe space for a certain group of birds. Mailbox44 was once an environment which encapsulated everything people could ever dream of. The title of the project relates to both the symbolism of the birds and also the idea of a mailbox. The number 44 was associated specifically with
the name of this town in the past. - Kristina
I am sharing a quote from an interview with my grandmother, where we delved into her recollections of her family and her birthplace in northern Greece.
“My father’s late night arrivals home from the near by mountains are something that I will always remember. As well as his departures from home with food and other goods. The guerrilla base was located in the mountains around the village. He was fighting alongside the guerilla fighters during the Greek Civil War.”